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Authors: David Klass

Grandmaster (6 page)

BOOK: Grandmaster
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Dad was quiet for a long moment, and then he surprised me by shutting his eyes and intoning in a low and serious voice: “O Lord, who looks down upon us and sees everything we do, this is Morris Pratzer giving you a shout-out from suite 2206 of the Palace Royale Hotel.” I suspected he was poking fun at the whole absurd situation, but at the same time his tone was solemn and he had a very serious look on his face. Mr. Kinney and Dr. Chisolm seemed to be buying it, at least for now.

“Lord,” my father continued, “help us to be brave and strong and play well and conquer.”

“Amen to that,” Mr. Kinney muttered, glancing at his watch. “Fifteen minutes, Grandmaster.”

Dad gave him a quick glance. “And let us be also aware of our own weaknesses.” His voice quivered and for a moment my father’s words sounded like a heartfelt prayer. “Let us not be blinded by false confidence. Help us to remember the great and small blunders we’ve made along the way.” His voice dropped to a whisper: “I, who loved chess as a boy and haven’t played a game in thirty years, humbly ask for your special guidance and mercy.”

I couldn’t understand why he used the word “mercy.”

Mr. Kinney was staring at my father, surprised and not pleased. “
Thirty years, Morris?
I hope you’ve been practicing on the side, because that’s a heck of a long time…”

Dad’s voice swelled, drowning Mr. Kinney out. “Most important, Lord, we thank you for the blessing of playing in this tournament with our sons. Perhaps we have been too busy and have neglected them. Maybe we have hidden ourselves from them. Perhaps we have not shown them our love.” I couldn’t be sure, but I think his hand clenched my own just a bit tighter. “Grant us the wisdom to know how fleeting time is, so that we can cherish this precious weekend together. Winning is important, but the love of a father for his son is by far the greater blessing. Amen.”

Mr. Kinney opened his mouth and I thought he was going to tell my dad that he was wrong, and that winning was the only goal here. Then his finger stroked the side of his cheek. I’m not sure, because he turned his head away, but I believe he might have dabbed away a tear. “Amen,” he repeated in a low voice. “Well said, Morris.”

“Amen,” Dr. Chisolm echoed, springing to his feet like a mountain goat leaping off a rock. “No doubt about it, family love is the most important thing here. Now come on, Eric. Let’s go slaughter them!”

 

9

 

The elevator doors opened to a mob scene. We stepped out onto the common area of the tournament floor where a crowd was clustered around large pairings sheets taped to the walls. Nervous fathers and sons jostled one another to try to get close enough to read what board they’d been assigned to and who they were supposed to play.

I wormed my way forward and finally made it close enough to find my name. This tournament would follow the Swiss System—in every round players would be matched against opponents who had the same win-loss record. In the first round, since everyone had zero wins and zero losses, higher-rated players had been matched against lower-rated ones. I was supposed to play a guy named Liu Hong, who was rated more than three hundred points higher than me and who would most probably crush me.

I scanned the list for my dad’s name and saw that he was matched against an expert named Marciano on board three. Experts are rated just below masters—which means they really know what they’re doing. A grandmaster wouldn’t normally have much trouble beating an expert, but I wondered how Dad would fare in such a tough first game after not playing for three decades.

I forced my way out of the scrum and looked around for my father. He had wandered over to where the tournament rankings were posted. A series of computer printouts listed all four hundred and thirty-two players in order of their Chess Federation ratings, from highest to lowest. At the very top were five grandmasters. Morris W. Pratzer—with an asterisk next to his name because he hadn’t played for so long—was third, beneath Grandmaster Salvador Sanchez and Grandmaster George Liszt. I was ranked near the bottom, but there were several dozen players beneath me. Most of those players were just starting out and didn’t yet have ratings.

Dad didn’t notice me walk up—he was studying the printout intently. I stepped next to him. “You’re pretty high up there, Killer.”

He shrugged. “Don’t get hung up on ratings…”

“By God, is that you, Morry?”
a deep voice boomed from behind us. I turned and saw a burly man in what looked like a red flannel hunter’s shirt, with an untrimmed black beard that tumbled to his chest. Everything about him was big, from his loud voice to his ponderous stomach to his hands that seemed as large as baseball mitts. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw your name. But it really is you, isn’t it? I figured you had died back in the nineties.”

“Hello, George,” my father said, and I noticed that despite the fact that they obviously knew each other from long ago, neither of them seemed inclined to shake hands.

“And this must be your son.”

“Daniel, this is George Liszt. An old…” My father searched for the right word.

“Rival?” the big man suggested with a slight smile. “And admirer. I was always a big fan of your father’s, Daniel.” He smiled at me, but it was an ironic smile, as if he was signaling to me that his words had a hidden and quite opposite meaning. “He was the best of us,” Grandmaster Liszt told me. “No one ever played like him … with such all-consuming zeal…”

“Enough, George,” my father warned. “Where’s your own son?”

“Already at his board,” Liszt said. “At least I hope he is. His teammates call him the ‘Ghost’ because he’s impossible to find between rounds. He’s addicted to all sports and he just sits in our bedroom flipping through sports channels…”

A buzzer sounded from inside the ballroom, and a voice announced over loudspeakers: “Round one will begin in five minutes. Chess players, find your boards.”

My father put his arm around my shoulder. “Come.”

We had to walk around the walrus of a grandmaster to get to the ballroom doors, and for a moment George Liszt blocked our way. “Best of luck, Morry,” he rumbled. “I hope you find some of the old magic.” He had developed a mocking tone to go with his ironic smile. “But not too much of it.”

“Good luck to you, too,” Dad growled through gritted teeth.

“A great pleasure meeting you, Daniel,” Grandmaster Liszt told me. “You have some big shoes to fill. Maybe we’ll run into each other again before we’re done here and find the time for a little chat.”

I shrugged as my father yanked me away toward the ballroom. Dad’s head was down and his teeth were clenched so tightly it looked like he would grind his molars to powder. “Don’t worry about it,” I told him. “Whatever that guy’s problem is, he’s clearly a jerk.”

“I should never have come,” Dad murmured. “It was asking for trouble.”

Side by side we walked through the gaping doors of the Palace Royale’s grand ballroom, into a massive playing space that looked as big as a football field. Dad wasn’t the only one feeling nervous. I gazed around and felt myself tense up. Hundreds of tables had been arranged in perfect rows and covered with white cloths. Chess pieces had been set up on boards and stood ready for action. The tables had numbers on their sides, and fathers and sons were wishing one another good luck and finding their places. I had played in a few club tournaments in New Jersey, but nothing on this vast scale.

I knew I wasn’t a strong player, and I certainly hadn’t studied chess theory night and day, so I didn’t expect miracles. But now that I was here, I found myself hoping that I could do a little better than expected, especially with my father’s help. After all, he was a grandmaster and I was his son. I had inherited his athletic ineptitude and some of his mathematical ability, so wasn’t it possible that I also had some of his chess genes, if not genius? George Liszt’s mocking words had hit home—something extra was expected of me.

“What board are you?” Dad asked.

“One-ninety-seven,” I told him, which meant I must be near the back of the hall. “I’m playing a Chinese guy rated much higher. He’s probably going to crush me, but don’t worry about it. This is your show. You must be up on the stage.” The top five tables were on a kind of raised dais at the very front of the ballroom, near a dozen enormous trophies that glittered in the bright light.

Dad didn’t head for the stage—he stayed right with me. “First of all, as I told you before, don’t get hung up on ratings,” he cautioned. “They mean less than you think, unless you believe in them and give them power. Just play carefully and you’ll do fine.” Dad pointed. “As for playing a Chinese guy, you got that wrong, too.”

Looking down the long row of fathers and sons getting ready to square off against one another, I saw one teenage girl. She was seated at board 197. A short, pleasant-looking Chinese woman stood behind her, setting her chess clock.

“Two minutes,” the voice boomed from the loudspeakers.
“Find your boards.”

“Go,” I told my father. “I’ll be all right.” I didn’t want him to be late. At chess tournaments, you have to make a certain number of moves in a set amount of time or you lose the game. Dad was out of practice, and I didn’t want him to give away any precious minutes.

“I’ll just come and get you settled,” he said. “It’s okay if I’m a minute or two late. I play quickly.”

I walked over to the girl. She was reading a novel and totally ignoring her mother and the chess insanity all around her. On closer inspection, the book was
David Copperfield
by Charles Dickens, which we had just finished in our freshman English class. “Hi,” I said. “I think we’re playing each other in round one.”

She finished a paragraph and stuck a bookmark in the novel, but she still didn’t close it.

“Liu,
put away the book
,” her mother commanded. “It’s time to concentrate on chess.”

“Worry about your own game,” the girl told her mom in an irritated voice. Then she glanced up at me. She was wearing jeans and a light blue sweater, and she had tiny hoop earrings. Her hair hung down behind her in a long braid. “You’re late,” she said to me.

I sat down opposite her. “Actually, there are still two minutes left. I’m Daniel Patzer…” I caught myself and shot her a goofy grin. “I mean Pratzer.”

“I know who you are,” she said without smiling back. “I’ve already filled out both of our score sheets, since you seemed to have gotten lost.”

“Liu,” her mother urged, “make an effort to at least pretend to be polite.”

Liu shot her mom an exasperated glare and then flashed me a fake smile and held out her hand. “Hi, Daniel. Where did you say you were from?”

I didn’t know what to do so I shook her hand. It felt small and warm. “New Jersey,” I told her. “Sorry to be late. We had a team meeting.”

“Mind Cripplers,” she said, reading my shirt. “That’s a charming name.”

“I didn’t think it up,” I responded, getting fed up with her attitude, “so chill out.”

There was a momentary awkward silence. “I take it you’re in the tournament, too?” Dad asked her mom. “I didn’t know there was a mother-daughter bracket.”

“I’ll ignore the sexist implications to that,” her mother said, and I saw where Liu got her prickliness. “As a matter of fact, there are no separate brackets. No one thought to make an official rule that it had to be just fathers and sons, so we’re all in the same tournament. Anything a man can do, a woman can do better. I taught my daughter chess, and I’m playing at board thirty-five,” she said proudly. “What about you?”

“Three,” Dad told her.

Her eyebrows shot up.
“What?”

“Let’s go find our boards,” Dad suggested, “and leave these two novices to their combat. Good luck, Daniel, and you too, young lady. No mercy.”

The two of them walked off toward the front of the ballroom, and I was left alone with this fire-breathing dragon of a girl. The chessboard and the pieces were between us. The clock was on the right side of the board, waiting to be started. Liu stared at me, sizing me up—and then put her chin on her hands and leaned forward. “So, Daniel from New Jersey. Anything on your mind?”

“That’s a good book,” I said. “I just read it.”

“It would be good if it wasn’t so incredibly, unbelievably boring,” Liu replied.

“I didn’t find it boring at all,” I told her. “In fact, I thought it was one of the best books I’ve ever read.”

A man with a microphone walked out to the front of the dais. “On behalf of the tournament organizers, I’d like to welcome you all to the First Annual Father-Son National Championship. Before we begin, I have a special treat that I’m sure all our chess enthusiasts, young and old, will enjoy. Former World Champion Contender Arkady Shuvalovitch will say a few words. Arkady?” He paused and looked around. “Has anyone seen Arkady?”

“Can you believe this?” Liu muttered. Then she asked me, “So is your father really at board three or did he make that up?”

“He’s there.”

“So then … he’s like a master?”

“No,” I corrected her, “he’s a grandmaster.”

Liu took that in. “He taught you to play? Why aren’t you better?”

I’m usually very shy around girls, but Liu was so rude that it relaxed me and freed me up to respond with some attitude of my own. “Actually, I didn’t even know my dad played chess till a week ago,” I told her. “And he never taught me a damned thing, not even how the pawns move.”

She looked intrigued. “Really? That’s kind of cool. Why not?”

She was making me angrier and angrier. “I don’t have a clue,” I told her. “But I don’t think it’s cool at all. And for what it’s worth, you’re wrong about
David Copperfield
. It’s a great book, even if you can’t appreciate it. And I wasn’t even late—this stupid tournament hasn’t even started because they can’t find Former World Champion Contender Schmuck-a-vich. But other than that, it’s been a real pleasure meeting you, Liu.”

For a heartbeat she looked like she was about to smile. Then she caught herself, and her face tightened in anger. “Don’t try to soften me up by flirting with me,” she said.

BOOK: Grandmaster
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